Peerless Pocock performance vindicates gutsy sabbatical call
The headlines said it all. 'Pocock's supreme return shatters Ireland'. 'Freakish Pocock issues Ireland warning'. 'Pocock shines in return…'.
Wallabies fans were happy to have their master pilferer back and in form.
To get to that moment David Pocock and Rugby Australia withstood a fierce backlash over the flanker's year-long sabbatical in 2017 and injury-delayed return to Super Rugby this year.
Pocock probably, annoyingly, is too evolved to have registered anything resembling personal triumph in that moment when he was dragged off the pitch, ragged grey scrum cap in hand, to watch the Wallabies close out the first Test against Ireland.
But for RA high performance boss Ben Whitaker, Wallabies coach Michael Cheika and former chief executive Bill Pulver, Pocock's peerless 70-minute performance was vindication.
The trio took a calculated but considerable risk two and a half years ago when they signed a three-year deal that allowed Pocock to do his own thing for the first of those. The stakes were high enough then; the so-called 'flexible contracting' concept was new to fans and where the likes of Bernard Foley and Israel Folau negotiated seasons in Japan (though Folau did not take up the option in the end), Pocock asked for an entire year off to travel, study and get as far away from rugby as he could.
Midway through the year the controversy heightened when it was revealed by Fairfax Media that Pocock would collect a handsome six-figure salary during that period. What was not published at the time but has come to light since was that RA structured the three-year contract that way. It was not a demand made by the player that he be paid while away.
Still, the headlines piled up and the critics exploded when, upon arrival home in Canberra early this year, Pocock announced he needed surgery on his knee and would miss the first three months of the Brumbies' season.
"David Pocock injury shows the folly of Rugby Australia deal" was one headline at the time. Ahead of his return, Wallabies great Simon Poidevin said it was "up to Dave Pocock to return the favour" to Australian rugby. Poidevin was happy to put his hand up this week, praising Pocock for his professionalism.
"He's paid it back in spades and his fitness levels look even better than he's ever done which is quite extraordinary, because he's one of the fittest guys on the planet," he said. "The good thing, watching the game, is that he's enjoying being back, so the sabbatical has been a good thing for his mindset."
There is still some way to go before the World Cup in Japan next year and for players like Pocock and Will Genia, it will be a nervous wait at head office to see if they can pull through this Test season and another full Super Rugby campaign without serious injury.
But RA's risk has paid off handsomely, not only in the form of a rejuvenated Pocock, but a grateful one.
"It was certainly a break. You think about what an incredible opportunity it is to represent Australia and as an immigrant Im so grateful for the opportunities Ive had," he said on Sunday. "To be able to pull on the green and gold and represent Australia and get out there … its a huge honour and something I dont take for granted."
Do not expect a raft of Pocock-style deals on the horizon, but RA will continue to be open to giving players time off tours, as they did last year when Folau missed the spring tour to marry and honeymoon with wife Maria. It is sensible personnel management in all senses – physical, mental and emotional.
But the Pocock experiment shows that in the rarest of cases being flexible, even extremely so, is worth it. As Poidevin said: "Pocock was at the forefront of the battle for a number of years, it was the right call."
Georgina Robinson is a Sports Reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald
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